iTunes Needs to Get Social

itunes_logo20080909The Apple (s aapl) rumor mill never stops. This week, the Financial Times is claiming that Apple is working hand-in-hand with record labels to redesign how it sells music albums on its iTunes store. According to the FT’s sources, Apple is working with EMI, Sony (s sne), Warner (s wmg) and Universal (s viv) on a project code-named “Cocktail.” The goal is to provide a more interactive album-purchasing experience, one that is distinctly different from that of buying just one song, by “bundling liner notes and video clips with the music.” Users would have an interactive “book,” presumably built into iTunes, including photos, lyric sheets and liner notes. But will such inclusions spur record sales? Having lyrics built into a track might save a trip to one of the billions of lyric sites on the Net, but shouldn’t that stuff be included anyway?

Sites like Last.FM (s cbs) make music listening more interactive, letting you share what you’re listening to with friends — but with iTunes and the iPod having 70 percent market share in the U.S., the killer app for any social music service would be full iTunes integration. Apple, which launched the iTunes store with a 99-cents-per-track model, has never really seemed to care whether users bought one or two songs from a particular album, or the whole thing, much to the chagrin of some artists who believed their work was being ruined by being sold piecemeal. As more and more people buy music online, per-track purchasing has become commonplace. However, the digital experience is still not the same as the offline one — and it never will be. But perhaps it is time to make the digital experience unique and better.

Once again, the record industry is short-changing itself. Unless Project Cocktail is way better than the FT is describing, it’s going to be unexciting. Integrating Facebook into iTunes would make the store truly interactive. Users would be able to tell their friends what they’re downloading (or not, in the case of some more embarrassing purchases), give reviews, and more. The Financial Times article quotes one exec saying that Cocktail is “all about recreating the heyday of the album when you would sit around with your friends looking at the artwork, while you listened to the music.” That’s great, but liner notes aren’t the way to do that.

Almost two years ago, I wrote about how Facebook was preparing to launch a platform for musicians in order to target MySpace’s continued dominance in the music space. A music platform never came to fruition on the site, though the company instead created Fan pages that are considerably more useful than creating normal profiles for bands — they aren’t subject to the 5,000-friend cap, which was the most limiting feature of the service for celebrities.

People don’t think about music in sleeves and album covers — they think about the first time they kissed their boyfriend, or about the song that pumped them up before the big game, or whatever. Songs have meaning, and it’s not because of some behind-the-scenes video or notes about how the album was produced. Bands should be able to combine their Facebook and iTunes pages; post to a blog and interact with fans; post exclusive content for their Facebook fans on iTunes — you get the idea. By creating a community around iTunes by integrating Twitter and Facebook, all three companies would create a huge splash in the music downloading business, and knock MySpace off its pedestal as the go-to site for music fans and artists.

If the goal is to recreate the heyday of the album, let folks share and experience their music with friends, with videos, with the liner notes and album covers. Apple doesn’t need to reinvent iTunes as a music service or a social-networking site. With listener reviews and the iMix, Apple is halfway there. Full integration and partnerships with Facebook, Twitter and maybe a site like Last.FM would increase engagement, boost page views, and establish the dominant music platform on the Net. It might just sell more music, too.